Viruses: The Positive Side

Charles Darwin proposed a mechanism for evolution that included the passing of mutations on through generations. Organisms with mutations that increased their fitness were more likely to pass this gene onto their offspring, and so on, increasing its frequency until the mutation was found throughout a species. However, Darwin did not anticipate the possibility of an outside force interfering: viruses. Viruses can implant their genetic information into the genomes of other species. This can then be passed down through generations, causing a change in organisms Darwin could not have predicted.

The most surprising thing to me from the article was the development of the placenta. Rather than causing a harmful effect, the retrovirus DNA assisted in creating an adaptation that makes humans who we are today. I, along with most people, give parasites a very negative connotation. However, a similar mechanism allows us to develop advanced brains. This has made me think less of whether a quality of a virus is “good” or “bad,” but start seeing it in a greater context. Viruses aren’t inherently evil beings out to kill us all; they are merely sacks of genetic information trying to survive and reproduce. Often our interactions with them do not end well for us, but on occasion, it can have a substantial benefit to the species as a whole.

I think scientists should revive dead viruses. They have been proven to be an essential part of our genome, and studying them will shed light on how we came to be humans. It can also help us prevent the negative effects of certain viruses, such as studying the pterv retrovirus in chimpanzees to prevent AIDS. While the potential benefits could be immense, this technology could also do harm in the wrong hands. Harmful viruses could easily be constructed as biological weapons, tailored to our specific genome. However, with the proper regulation, we can safely conduct research and learn more about our origins.

Another small detail I found interesting was the discussion of the name of Heidmann’s paper published in Genome Research. While the title  “Identification of an Infectious Progenitor for the Multiple-Copy herv-k Human Endogenous Retroelements’’ is accurate, he needed to use something more catchy to appeal to a wider audience. His creative naming was what made his work stand out and make everyone read and appreciate his findings. I thought this was interesting because I never thought of scientists having to work hard to market their research, but this apparently benefits them.

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